Drinking the Dregs
(Una Voce Newsletter, Winter, 2002)
“If contemporary society does not disintegrate”, an old departed friend of mine argued twenty four years ago, at the time of Paul VI’s death, “it will be an insult to my Reason as well as to my Faith”. He said this not as though he were filled with joy at the thought of the problems that would inevitably flow from social collapse, and for innocent and guilty alike, but out of a growing exasperation at the fact that anything so badly flawed and corrupting as modern civilization could continue to survive much longer. I recall his words frequently these days, and should like to make some comments upon them which I believe to be pertinent to the life of Una Voce America and International. I do this with some trepidation, however, since I feel as though I am either repeating what I have already said before, or, perhaps, simply belaboring the obvious.
First of all, it seems to me that my friend, were he still alive, would now feel that his natural and supernatural faculties had finally been given their due respect. Anyone with eyes to see what is happening in the globe at large today must realize that Faith and Reason have not accepted being mocked. A world that has indeed disdained them is disintegrating around us at an almost incredible pace. Church, state, and economy are in such wobbly and fluid condition as to make the mortally-ill civilization of 1978 appear positively vigorous, coherent and full of promise in comparison. Institutions and individuals wander from disaster to disaster like madmen, punished, on the one hand, by their failure to heed the laws of God, and on the other by their indifference to the wisdom and warnings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Surely, one would be tempted to think, anything as religiously confused as the modern progressive clerical establishment lies exposed to an imminent coup de grace. Inventing novelties at will, mired in sexual and financial scandals, losing the allegiance of layer after layer of the faithful, including the enormous number of Hispanics who have defected to evangelical Protestantism and Pentecostalism, burying the name of Christ Himself in ecumenical abandonment to a pluralism that cannot get enough of Catholic self-humiliation, it has forgotten the nature of the Church’s most basic work and why she alone can accomplish it. There is nothing but an embarrassment of choice regarding which of the other equally disturbed forces of our distintegrating culture might administer the final blow to this decrepit and inept band before succumbing to its own justified demise in turn.
On second thought, however, one needs to recognize that the final agony of modern anti-Catholic, anti-rational society, and the progressive clerical establishment that has become its ally, may last longer and involve still worse consequences than any of us would particularly like to contemplate. Yes, the chief principle on which modernity has been founded—the idea of the self-sufficiency of a natural world which is depicted sometimes as a predictable machine and sometimes as a fountain of innumerable, unpredictable, but justifiable passions—is erroneous and contradictory; it was bound, from the outset, to miserable failure. Nevertheless, it has been promoted openly for some two hundred fifty years by now (and in intellectual circles before that for much longer), with each generation of its opponents—our spiritual ancestors—incorrectly predicting its immediate collapse.
That this fate has not yet befallen it is, I think, due to many reasons, only two of which I will note here. One of them is the simple fact that it is human beings who are the agents of ideas, and many of these flawed and irrational creatures have often worked in practice against the development of the logic of the principles that they espouse, generally as a result of the continuing strong effects of traditional values upon them. They have delayed the harm of modern poison by a frequently unconscious recourse to its traditionalist antidote.
A second factor involves a failure of imagination on the part of the opponents of modernity; an inability to see just how elevated the civilization that they loved really was, and just how far they could descend before the chasm labeled total chaos opened up underneath them. I know this lack of imagination very well, since I suffer from it myself. It explains to me my surprise, ever four years or so, by a qualitative decline in an educational system which I already thought had hit rock bottom. Apparently, “the powers that be” are able to mine, with every generation of new high school students, the lodes of the logic of decay in areas where digging had not yet begun. With the realization of the potential for a still deeper descent into darkness comes the feeling, perhaps most effectively expressed by Saint Catherine of Siena when trying to woo the Papacy from Avignon back to Rome in the 1370’s, that the worst of one’s contemporary ecclesiastical scandal has not yet unfolded. She had the Great Western Schism lying in the wings. What rough beast slouches towards the front pages of our major dailies and prime time television screens to frighten still more blood from our already overly pale cheeks?
One thing that rarely, if ever, seems to change through all the evidence of decay and disintegration is the confidence of our opponents in their own erroneous views, even when these lead to the destruction of what they themselves claim to desire. Their tenacity is not surprising; it forms part of the very essence of modern ideology, whose peculiarity was vividly captured by an anecdote cherished by one of my undergraduate professors. He repeatedly told us the tale of a man who wakes up and informs his wife that she is dead. She ignores him at first, but, given his insistence on this absurd theme throughout the day, grows alarmed and invites a physician friend to dinner to help her convince him of his madness. Over coffee, the physician asks his friend whether or not dead men bleed. “Of course not!”, he responds in annoyance. The physician then takes his finger, pricks it with a pin, and squeezes out a few drops. “What do you think now?”, he triumphantly inquires. “Look at that!”, his friend exclaims. “Dead men do bleed!” No evidence to the contrary can convince the ideologue that he is wrong. “So much the worse for the facts!”, Hegel is apocryphally said to have snarled to a critical student seeking to refute the philosopher’s theories with reference to mere truth.
Unfortunately, the most painful examples of this ideological behavior in face of the evidence come, once again, from the ranks of those who call themselves conservatives; those who, as Louis Veuillot complained in the nineteenth century, are so good at conservation that they conserve, indiscriminately, good and bad alike. Una Voce members know exactly what I mean in this regard. Having started with an exaggerated understanding of the infallibility of the Church at large and the Papacy in particular—a position precisely rejected while defining the dogma of Papal Infallibility at Vatican One—they have deemed themselves obliged to accept the revolutionary principles of the progressive establishment, follow these wherever they lead, and praise the consequences that have been drawn from them as an integral and holy part of Sacred Tradition. Hence, the Catholic Stalinism that has become the distinguishing mark of some of their more virulent spokesmen; a Stalinism that purges the Old Guard, invents explanations for bizarre policies on all levels of Church activity that bear no relation to their actual genesis and blames abuses on traitors, wreckers, and Catholic Trotskyites. This Stalinism has succumbed to a cult of personality so completely that it could already commission a hagiographic biography of the next Pontiff, all of whose actions can be attributed to genius and the Holy Spirit, leaving a blank space for the name to be inserted upon his election.
The one element that adds a curious contradictory touch to this approach, indicating that the real heart of the conservatives is still with true Tradition, is the continued appearance of articles and advertisements in their publications dealing with the life and heroes of the Church before Second Vatican Council, as though these have not, in practice, been “whited out”, like doctored photographs from the Soviet era, by anyone who really grasps the current Party Line. Admittedly, even those of us—like Una Voce members—who do take all the evidence seriously, might be tempted by the sheer quantity of bad news into adopting false conservative positions as well. We might want the relief that comes from giving exaggerated significance to a hopeful sign here and attributing abuses merely to the fluke of a bad bishop or an undetected conspiracy there. Then, we, too, might be able to enjoy seeing the best of times in what are actually the worst of times. Even more horribly, the inundation of bad news might attract us to the flip side of the conservative attitude, the one which presumes the Pope to be above all criticism, sees that such criticism is nevertheless due, and concludes that the See of Peter must be vacant.
Such temptations have to be fought, and, once again, in the name of all the evidence. The evidence of Sacred Tradition shows us that the Church is still the Church, and her authorities still her authorities. It reveals to us where her indefectibility lies and what its boundaries are. It teaches us that her fallible, human character has been badly vitiated by alliance with the revolutionary principles that have plagued the other institutions of the western world for so very long now, bringing the string of consequences which have recently plunged us further into chaos, and which could propel us still deeper into the pit. It leaves us with our Faith unscathed because it demonstrates that nothing has happened that could bring our Faith into question. Neither our Faith nor our Reason has been mocked. “Thank heavens I believe in God”, my deceased friend also once said. “It has saved me from the foolishness of believing in men”. The evidence has illustrated to us that it is foolish mankind and not divine institutions which is to blame for our troubles.
One thing, therefore, that Una Voce members need not stir up is any existential Angst in the midst of disintegration. All that we see happening around us was bound to happen. Our task, as ever, is that of collecting the evidence, presenting it before the proper authorities with a constant demand for redress of grievances, avoiding false explanations and false hopes regarding who is or is not on our side, drawing profit from whatever crumbs of cooperation come our way, and doing the organizational work to keep together the broken shards of Catholic structure and culture that we encounter and can reshape. I know that all of you are doing this already, as the excellent national conference in California has recently so well demonstrated. The seeds laid down in seemingly infertile soil today will blossom beautifully when rained upon properly in the future. Dry spells may still lie ahead, but they only presage the inevitable day when the Church turns right side up again.
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